Best result: Third place, 1966
Manager: Fernando Santos
Star player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Despite his advancing years, in footballing terms, Cristiano Ronaldo should be ready to hit the ground running as Portugal aim to claim their fist World Cup trophy to place alongside the European Championships silverware they won two years ago in France.
Before his dramatic exit last week, Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane had rested Ronaldo for lesser games in La Liga and Copa del Rey action this past season, meaning his ageing legs should still have plenty of mileage left in them when the action gets under way in Russia.
Ronaldo is the clear leader and captain of a talented squad, with Fernando Santos at the helm, the manager going as far as saying the forward is “crucial” to their hopes this summer.
Despite having the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in their ranks, Portugal are not considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy and they will need top performances in all departments of the field if they are to defy that prediction.
Joao Mario and William Carvalho should anchor the middle of the park, with Andre Gomes and Bernardo Silva offering attacking options.
Up front, the man expected to take some of the pressure of Ronaldo when it comes to scoring the goals is relative newcomer 26-year-old Andre Dias, who made his tournament debut last year at the Confederations Cup when Portugal finished third.
Nani and Eder, who scored the winner in the Euro 2016 final victory over hosts over France, are unlikely to make the trip.
Best result: Champions, 2010
Manager: Julen Lopetegui
Star player: Diego Costa
With the curtain falling on Spain’s golden generation, expect a number of Julen Lopetegui’s stars to give their all to go out on a high.
Spain have disappointed in recent major tournaments, by their standards at least. A pair of back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012 sandwiched the side’s greatest achievement: winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
There was a major upset when the defending champions failed to advance from the group stages in Brazil in 2014, and they were dumped out of Euro 2016 in the last 16. 2016 in the round of 16.
Vicente Del Bosque stepped down after that flop in France, and Lopetegui took up the reins amid doubts he was the right man for the job.
However, he brought in youth to complement the experience and soon had them firing again as they qualified for an 11th consecutive World Cup with ease from a group that included notable tournament absentees Italy.
Manchester United’s David de Gea has made the No. 1 spot his own and it is hard to see Kepa Arrizabalaga or Pepe Reina getting game time in Russia unless De Gea suffers injury or suspension.
It will be two from Barcelona and two from Real Madrid as Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique will be making their final World Cup bows in a solid Spanish defence along with Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal.
Andres Iniesta, who recently announced his departure from Barcelona, will also be featuring in his final World Cup but his excellent passing skills and ball control will be key for the Spaniards in midfield with Sergio Busquets and Thiago Alcantara for company. Isco and David Silva will also be on hand to provide the attacking threats behind the front line.
Whom to start up front is Lopetegui’s biggest headache. Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa is the front-runner but Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas, Valencia’s Rodrigo Real’s Lucas Vazquez, Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata, Napoli’s Jose Callejon and Atletico’s Vitolo are all options. Who misses the cut will be fairly hard done by out of that pool of talent.
Best result: Last 16, 1986
Manager: Herve Renard
Star player: Mehdi Benatia
One of the biggest stories surrounding Morocco during this World Cup will most likely not involve them progressing to the knockout stages. It seems highly unlikely they will prevent Spain and Portugal from occupying the top two spots in Group B.
Morocco are fighting the World Cup on another stage as they contend with the might of the United States for the right to host the 2026 World Cup.
Continuing that David v Goliath theme, the players will be out to do their nation proud on the field in the country’s first trip to the finals in 20 years.
Victory over the Ivory Coast in a play-off ensured Morocco’s qualification for Russia, with a squad made up largely of foreign-born players, rooting out talent to don the red shirt in France, the Netherlands and Spain.
Morocco came to global attention when they stunned England, Poland and Portugal to win their group in 1986, and they have also caused a few upsets since.
Herve Renard has no real stars at his disposal but has put together a competent team built around captain Mehdi Benatia, the well-travelled defender who was born in France and plays in Italy for Juventus.
Another of the Moroccan ‘foreign’ legion — Spanish-born Munir Mohamedi — should start in goals as he kept six straight clean sheets in the final round of qualifying.
Aside from Juve, Benatia has also played for Roma and Bayern Munich and his vast experience of elite European football will be vital to the team in the heart of defence. Either side of him with be two wing-backs to keep an eye on for the future, with Real Madrid’s 19-year-old Achraf Hakimi on the right and Lille’s 20-year-old Hamza Mendyl on the left.
UAE fans will know the name of the man orchestrating the Morocco midfield. Al Jazira’s Mbark Boussoufa has established himself as the key in midfield and he has experience of conditions in Russia having played for Anzhi Makhachkala and Lokomotiv Moscow.
Khalid Boutaib might have some lonely moments as a lone striker up front as the defenders deal with the attacking prowess of Spain and Portugal, and Renard has another option to provide the goals as 24-year-old Ayoub el-Kaabi bagged nine goals and the African Nations Championship earlier this year. They will need to grab any opportunity that comes their way.
Best result: Group stages
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Star player: Ashkan Dejagah
Iran booked their place with relative ease, staying undefeated as they topped a qualifying group that included South Korea. It is hard to imagine they will find the going quite so easy in Russia.
Yes, Portugal and Spain stand in their way, but Iran did not concede one goal in the first nine of their 10 qualifiers and that should give them confidence to go forward knowing they have a sturdy back line.
On the sidelines, coach Carlos Queiroz has had a stormy relationship with his bosses. The Portuguese former Real Madrid boss resigned from his post in March 2015 following a fall-out with the Iranian Football Federation before returning in April of the same year. He has also publicly spoken out about the somewhat uninspiring preparations for the World Cup, where Iran face lowly opposition in Uzbekistan and Latvia during warm-up matches.
On the field, Iran’s clean sheets are partly down to their imposing goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, a 6-foot-4 giant and a safe pair of hands.
The solid defence is overseen by veteran Jalal Hosseini and Rouzbeh Cheshmi, Milad Mohammadi and Ramin Rezaeian can provide a turn of pace when required.
One player that is turning heads is Morocco striker Alireza Jahanbakhsh, will be hoping to impress the watching world after becoming the top scorer in the Eredivise in the Netherlands while playing for AZ Alkmaar this season. If he plays his cards right, a top club could come calling for his services soon
Fellow forward Sardar Azmoun can provide inside knowledge of life in Russia as he has been plying his trade for Rostov for the past five years and he will be also hoping for a move to bigger things with some top performances in his home from home.
Iran’s best chance to make an impact could come in their opening game when they face other Group B outsiders Morocco.